Dr. Judith Shapiro is on the faculty of the Global Environmental Politics program at American University in Washington, D.C. and directs the Dual Degree in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRSD) in coordination with the University for Peace in Costa Rica. In addition to other books on China, she is the author of “China’s Environmental Challenges” (2012) and “Mao’s War Against Nature” (2001). Her website is www.judithshapiro.com.
Professor Yifei Li is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at NYU Shanghai and Global Network Assistant Professor at NYU. For the 2020-2021 academic year, he is also a Residential Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany. Before joining NYU Shanghai, he taught sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he received his master’s degree and doctorate. His website is: http://yifei.li/.
The following is an interview with Dr. Shapiro and Prof. Li about a book they co-authored, “China Goes Green.” The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
Young China Watchers (YCW): Does the political philosophy embedded in “ecological civilization”, which has been enshrined in the Chinese Constitution and links the future pursuit of environmental protection with the historical legacy of the party-state, exclude non-state actors from environmental discourse, policy, and action?
Yifei Li (YL): The concept itself doesn’t necessarily preclude non-state actors from participating, although in practice that’s very much the case. It’s excluding non-state actors in the way the Chinese state interprets ecological civilization as a state-dictated set of terms about what constitutes civilization, imposing a view of developmental success onto people who are marginalized. From the conceptual root of it, it’s increasingly going to manifest in a way that is not only dominated by the state, but exclusively owned and practiced by the state.
YCW: You cite Leslie Hooks’ 2019 characterization of China as “both the greenest [country] in the world, but also the most polluting.” State-led environmentalism has to strike a balance of rigidity and flexibility in central and local implementation that is similar to other state-led elements of Chinese society: capitalism, criminal justice, philanthropy, education, etc. Where does state-led environmentalism fall on the rigidity-flexibility spectrum compared to other state-society relationships?
Judith Shapiro (JS): What we’re seeing now is very little coercion by agreement; instead, we often see coercion by disagreement. Unless ordinary people are able to participate in the formulation of policies and unless they’re able to understand why certain policies are in place, they’re likely to undercut or disobey the government, or simply become more resentful of the reach of the state. We see this in the Shanghai recycling mandate: The state didn’t explain it to people, arranged such narrow windows in which people could bring their recycling to certain locations, and were so punitive in the way they docked peoples’ social credit scores, that people became motivated to take their trash to work or dump it by the side of the road.
YL: What’s really important to recognize is that, along that spectrum, the more rigid the state wants to be, appears to be and turns out to be, the less successful it becomes in pursuing its environmental goals. The spectrum is a good way of thinking about the diversity of approaches that we document in the book. The argument we try to highlight is how an open-minded state leadership actually is the key to successful state leadership.
YCW: How does the homogenized view of “development” in the Chinese context contribute to minority groups and other disadvantaged populations being disproportionately impacted by environmental policy?
JS: One of the themes of the book is that, in recent decades, China has increasingly used environmental justifications to achieve state goals of control in borderlands and over ordinary people in general. The Chinese state has been trying to “pacify” the borderlands for centuries; but now, in the name of environmental protection, they’re actually exerting and achieving goals that are not related to the environment.
People talk about authoritarian environmentalism as though authoritarian means are being used to achieve environmental goals, but we found more often than not it’s environmental means that are being used to achieve authoritarian goals.
YL: Environmental issues simply cannot be solved by a one-size-fits-all approach. The sheer complexity of ecology itself warrants a multiplicity of solutions. That’s issue number one. Number two is that ecosystems respond to various human interventions in ways that are oftentimes unexpected. There are short-term and long-term responses. Within two or three years, ecological feedback loops are going to emerge. We will then realize the tremendous negative consequences that were unintended and weren’t foreseen.
YCW: One of your arguments is that the Chinese Communist Party has in recent years moved away from its Maoist appreciation of public participation in political movements, embodied in the mass line (群众路线) and enacted in campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In contemporary China, is it more feasible to attain civic buy-in or “mutually-agreed coercion” for certain issues than others? For example, tackling air pollution in Beijing versus forced recycling in Shanghai.
JS: It would be a mistake for us to think that those Mao-era campaigns were voluntary campaigns. They were very destructive and even though there were elements of democracy where people could speak out, overall these are not what we’re looking for in terms of public participation.
As far as public participation goes in environmental policy, we are afraid that using a campaign-style approach to policy making is not successful in the long run because there will be a sudden big push to meet some targets, while the lower-level officials look upward for promotions and salary raises and so forth. As a result, there will be a flurry of action that can often end up with unexpected negative consequences without long-term success.
YL: If environmental harm is imminent, then people will act. We’ve seen movements against the locational decisions of certain polluting factories. One of the examples is the app that was developed by the Jiangsu provincial government, called “Black and Smelly Water.” You can download the app and if you happen to see a polluted body of water, take a picture, geo-reference it and upload it. Officials will actually report back to you and see what they found out about that body of water. All of us who live in China see a fair amount of pollution around us every day, but it’s not that we don’t want to do something about it; It’s that we don’t know how to. Sometimes, mechanisms like that app enable people not only to show buy-in, but also active support for a cause that’s ultimately beneficial to the people as well as to the political regime.
YCW: In the context of the Belt and Road Initiative, you discuss China’s influence on international approaches to environmental policy. But in order to adopt any of China’s strategies, other states have to understand them. Do you believe international actors misinterpret the Chinese approach, especially vis-a-vis conflating authoritarian environmentalism (authoritarian means to achieve environmental ends) and environmental authoritarianism (environmental means to achieve authoritarian ends)?
JS: I think that environmentally-minded foreign observers are so discouraged by the failure of the international community to deal with all the planetary environmental challenges we face, that they adopt a kind of wishful thinking; that maybe a more decisive Chinese model can show us the way. Phrases like “ecological civilization,” “green development,” and “carbon neutrality by 2060” seem really attractive to people who don’t know China very well. That’s actually one of the main reasons we chose to write the book at this time, because there are things in the China model that are admirable to which we want to give credit, but there are lots of things that should really cause us to take a pause and think about what this looks like on the ground inside as well as outside of China.
We have to look very carefully at China’s approach. We’re not saying that every single move made by China has some sort of nefarious alternative motivation, but we want to make it clear that some state-led authoritarian tools that end up depriving ordinary people of privacy, agency and voice are also present in China’s overseas investment.
Oftentimes, Chinese investors will partner with more or less authoritarian recipient countries and think having the government on board is sufficient. Then they find out that local people are incensed because the project is a violation of their rights. Then it might go to court and they lose days of work and there are riots, and the Chinese are genuinely surprised. They have quite a learning curve to climb here.
YL: We certainly don’t want to single out China, because this is not a uniquely Chinese issue. The World Bank, Asia Development Bank and other development agencies have similar track records. China has merely adopted a very similar playbook.
I would also like to think about this question from the perspective of China. The Chinese state is eager to become the global environmental leader of the 21st century. They want to fill that void now that the U.S. has decidedly retreated, but the issue seems to be that they don’t know how to become that leader. There seems to be a genuine sense of hurt when Chinese state capital is met with local resistance. That feeling comes from not even knowing what would make these projects more sensitive to local concerns and local issues, largely because they haven’t had that experience within China.
They don’t need to ask for permission when they do these projects in China. When the state decides, it imposes. But in Latin America, for example, there are laws emerging about rights of rivers, and free, prior and informed consent for indigenous groups. In the constitutions of some of these countries, there’s this notion of pachamama, or “Mother Earth” — the rights of the Earth itself. Their political philosophies differ greatly from the Chinese approach, and as of now, China doesn’t have a lot of experience working with governments who hold these views.
I hope Chinese state actors actually read the book and think about it seriously, because if they want to be the great environmental leader of the 21st century, they need to act differently.
YCW: What does the CCP stand to gain from expanding environmental policy discussions into the public sphere?
YL: A lot. First of all, it’s about effective environmental governance. What we’re documenting is that they’re investing an awful lot of political and bureaucratic resources to try and manage the environment, but a lot of the efforts have gone awry. By opening up to the public, they can better learn how to approach environmental issues and the material quality of environmental policies will see significant improvement.
A second improvement would be general citizen confidence in the state. It’s not like whenever there’s a new fiasco from the Chinese state, people just sweep it aside as though nothing has happened; People make fun of them. The rule of the Communist Party is discredited every time they fail.
JS: Sometimes the expert advice that gets the most play is advice from engineers. We actually documented in “China Goes Green” a number of fascinating things the Chinese are doing with what they’re calling “sky weather” on the Tibetan plateau — they’re putting silver iodide machines all over the Tibetan plateau to make it rain there and to alter the weather patterns as a way to counter-balance glacier melt from climate change. These are ideas that the top Tsinghua engineering departments are coming up with. But where are the social scientists? Where are the anthropologists? Where are the sociologists? Where are the people who understand the meanings of these policies? The more recent CCP lineups included lots of engineers: The Three Gorges Dam is the product of Li Peng, who is an engineer. Just because you’re an elite scientist doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to make good decisions on the environmental front. That’s in fact one of the problems with the infatuation with high modernism and technocratic governance.
YL: For a new project in collaboration with two NYU Shanghai students, I attempt to use big data to analyze all published English-language articles on China’s environment. The goal is to create a huge social network analysis of who is co-authoring with whom and who is citing whom. One of the preliminary findings of the study is that the Chinese Academy of Sciences has an overwhelming, domineering position in almost every subfield of the China environment literature. They co-author with everybody, and everybody cites them. That’s an unimaginable position for a research institution anywhere outside of China. And the fact that a state-backed agency has so much epistemic power in creating scientific knowledge worries me. Who is to say the Chinese Academy of Science is wrong? Nobody, because they effectively become the definition of what’s right.
YCW: Judith, you’ve written in China Dialogue that China’s 2060 carbon neutrality pledge is commendable, but should not be implemented in a way that “masks other state goals,” such as data collection. Is this an example of environmental authoritarianism, and if so, can we afford to condemn it while the world lacks meaningful climate leadership elsewhere?
JS: It’s highly praiseworthy to set a high ambitious goal, and for China to step forward and say what we need to do and for the world to try to follow suit. That’s fantastic. I’m just saying let’s watch how it is implemented. Let’s see whether the moves the Chinese state makes were moves it was going to make anyway, for which it is trying to get international credit.
YL: One of the things we have to remember is that carbon is a fact of life on this planet. Every single thing we do on this planet generates a carbon footprint. So for the Chinese state to declare carbon neutrality by 2060, I worry what that means for everyone at every agency, every company, every organization. Are they going to control everything that we do?
JS: It’s absolutely praise-worthy to have a target but let’s not make it a technocratic, mechanistic, crackdown type of target. Let’s make it something that the Chinese state spends time explaining to the people and engaging with people and allowing people to have creative ideas about how to meet those targets in the best possible way such that it enhances livelihoods rather than harms people.
By Judith Shapiro
By Yifei Li
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